The Completely True Story Behind Atticus Finch Day

January 1, 2015 | By Shane Phelps Law
The Completely True Story Behind Atticus Finch Day

“The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience.

— Atticus Finch, To Kill a Mockingbird

Every year for the past seven years in Brazos County, attorneys gather, clad in seersucker apparel, to pause and reflect on the ideals embodied in the character of Harper Lee’s fictional southern lawyer, Atticus Finch. Not surprisingly, we call it “Atticus Finch Day.” We come together as a bar, as colleagues, and as friends, to re-commit ourselves to the nobility of our profession and to representing our clients zealously and ethically without tearing each other apart in the process.

I have been asked many times about the origins of Atticus Finch Day. Here is how it came to pass.

Every lawyer, at one point or another in his or her life or career, has pointed to Atticus Finch as an inspiration. We revere his courageous fight to defend an innocent black man in the segregated south from charges of raping a white woman. We pontificate about his ethics, his quiet strength, and his willingness to do the right thing without regard to personal consequence.

We cite Atticus as our ideal and, far too often, we fall short.

Atticus Finch Day was born as a hopeful answer to a courthouse community that had become so fractured and dysfunctional that lives were being affected. Political vendettas, personal discord, email scandals, runaway grand juries, courts of inquiry, animosity between the District Attorney’s Office and the County Attorney’s Office, tension between prosecutors and defense attorneys, rampant rumor and gossip, all contributed to a pretty unpleasant place to work.

And lest anyone suggest that I am being holier-than-thou, I wholly and completely accept my share of the blame and regret every minute of it.

For me, it all came to a head during a heated jury trial in the 361st District Court. I, along with another assistant district attorney, Cory Crenshaw, was prosecuting an attorney for multiple counts of forgery. The attorney had become involved in a number of email scams involving counterfeit checks. She represented herself and local attorney Phil Banks was appointed by the Court as “stand-by counsel” to assist her during the trial.

Phil and I had dealt with each other from time to time in the course of negotiating pleas in criminal cases. Phil was always friendly and jovial and I enjoyed his visits to my office. We were not close friends, but we were friendly. Phil is “old school Bryan” and I was still a relative newcomer to Brazos County, having moved just a few years prior from Austin to accept a position with the DA’s Office.

The trial was difficult, as is always the case with a pro se defendant. And, it was especially difficult for Phil, a veteran trial attorney, to watch as the attorney on trial slowly but surely convicted herself.

According to my former boss, I had developed a reputation among the defense bar as a somewhat relentless and dogged prosecutor in trial. Sometimes, I could not tell when enough was enough.

At one point several days into the trial, I saw what I thought was an important opportunity to raise an issue and present additional evidence that would have, in retrospect, prolonged the trial unnecessarily. As I look back, at that point in the trial, even though she “opened the door” wide, the case was already over.

And Phil had had enough. Arguing the admissibility, relevance, and necessity of the evidentiary path I was attempting to take, we found ourselves nose to nose about six feet in front of the jury, red-faced, in an epic stare-down. I said to Phil something like: “You’re not the man I thought you were.” It was a stupid thing to say in the heat of trial.

Then Phil said it: “Make my day, Phelps.” I looked down and saw that his fists were clenched and he was ready to “throw down” right there in front of the jury.

Turns out, Phil has a temper.

The Judge called strategically for a break and I retreated to the District Attorney’s Office. About five minutes later, Phil came to the District Attorney’s Office and apologized to me. I apologized to him. We hugged.

At least that’s how I remember it.

Phil and I have become very good friends. And we both regret our conduct in the courtroom that day. As our friendship and mutual affection grew, we revisited the whole episode frequently. We both agreed that we fell short.

About this time, I reread To Kill a Mockingbird. I had read the novel in my teens and it was a big part of the inspiration for me personally to go to law school. It occurred to me in rereading the book and reacquainting myself with Atticus Finch that I could do better as an attorney. Being an attorney is much more than winning cases and making money. It is, or should be, about righting wrongs, seeking justice, bettering my community. Ours is a noble profession, despite what some may think, and incredible good has been accomplished by courageous attorneys motivated by the right ethics and principles. Like Atticus Finch.

I approached Phil with an idea. In an interesting irony, when we delivered our final arguments in the trial in which Phil and I had our confrontation, we both showed up in seersucker suits. Atticus Finch wore a seersucker suit. I asked Phil if he would join me in attempting to gather attorneys together at least once a year to rededicate ourselves to the ideals we often point to in Atticus Finch but frequently fall short of. We could dress in seersucker apparel, drink lemonade, talk about why we revere Atticus Finch, read passages from the novel, and commit to working harder in the coming year to do better, to be more like Atticus Finch.

Phil was enthusiastic and we have worked together each year since to build Atticus Finch into a meaningful observance at which we and our fellow attorneys could resolve to be better advocates, aspire to more noble ends, and to treat each other gently in the process.

The first year, we met in the elevator lobby of the courthouse. There were about 10-15 of us and we all listened as Billy Carter read his favorite passages from To Kill a Mockingbird and exhorted us to strive to be better lawyers, like Atticus Finch. The event has grown each year and we had to move to a bigger venue, the Atrium area in the Brazos County Administration Building. Our crowds have grown steadily. Last year, we were standing room only.

Humbly, I think it has made a difference. At least it has for me. I’m a better lawyer today for having taken the time each year to revisit the reasons I became an attorney and reflect on the good that can be done with a law degree in the hands of an ethical and determined attorney. And my friendship with Phil has made me a better person.

We will gather again this year at 11:30 on April 24 in the Brazos County Administration Building (200 South Texas Avenue). Our featured guest this year is the Honorable Cathy Cochran, one of my favorite attorneys and judges. Judge Cochran just retired from the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals and is a former prosecutor and defense attorney. The law has been Judge Cochran’s second career following a successful career as a teacher. She is one of the smartest attorneys (or people) I have met and has distinguished herself as one of Texas’s best criminal judges. She was recently profiled in Texas Monthly, which recognized her for the integral role she has played over the past decade-and-a-half in shaping Texas criminal jurisprudence. You can read the article here.

Judge Jim Locke of Brazos County Court at Law Number 2 will also speak briefly and deliver our opening invocation.

As a personal aside, one of the traditions of Atticus Finch Day has become the cookies we serve. Each year, my wife Jean (also an attorney as well as a CPA), bakes incredible sugar cookies for the event. I think some people come just for the cookies (I’m talking to you, Larry).

The courthouse is a calmer and friendlier place these days. At least it seems that way to me. I hope that Atticus Finch Day has had something to do with that.

And, by the way, Phil would have laid me out with one punch.